There was always a warning in “The House of the Rising Sun,” with an aching guitar to accompany what sounded like a slow descent into hell, so it is absolutely perverse of writer/director Anita Rocha da Silveira to take the familiar melody in her second feature “Medusa” and work in new lyrics sung by an all-Christian girls choir called Michelle and the Treasures of the Lord, supplementing its admonitions of living in sin with electoral advice in an upcoming election in Brazil. If the road to the netherworld is paved with good intentions, it’s safe to say the devil’s handiwork is already done in a place where there is no such thing as redemption, only conversion as the young women that look all innocent and in harmony at their church take to the streets at night to beat up anyone they believe is less than virginal, hidden behind masks so they can film their bloodied victims promising to devote themselves to God and posted online where they can rack up 10,000 hits within minutes.
Rocha da Silveira isn’t all that interested in the particulars of the church, built upon a consistently replenished supply of young people divided into sects based on gender — the men fall into line as the Watchmen of Zion — all inferred to be abducted at an early age and indoctrinated. But she does become intrigued as one of its members has a change of heart, watching as Mariana (Mari Oliveira) is inadvertently exposed to her own sins when she starts to work at a hospital where one of the women she’s beaten lies disfigured. Her reason for being there is intentional — she is serving Michele (Bruna Linzmeyer), the Regina George of this group of mean girls, in confirming what happened to someone whose face she set on fire as rumors swirl as to what happened to her — yet the impact it has on her couldn’t have been anticipated as she’s exposed to a reality that her pastor has long sought to deny, cleaning up after patients whose incapacitated state now surely couldn’t all be reflective of heathenism.
Arriving shortly after compatriot Gabriel Mascaro imagined a similarly neon-lit dystopian future in “Divine Love” where a good Christian found her allegiance to God hard to reconcile when she had so much trouble conceiving a child, it could be said that Rocha da Silveira attends the same church, yet one very far away from any religious order as the hypocrisy of the evangelical movement is exposed in bold colors and brash actions. Occasionally repetitive, but never dull, “Medusa” skewers the increasingly violent impulses of those that hardly understand the tenets of their own faith, holding others to impossible standards of worship that they’re incapable of adhering to themselves and demanding fealty that is in stark contrast to the humility of Jesus’ example. While exposing hypocrisy may not be difficult these days, Rocha da Silva does it with an uncommon flair, knowing the splashy visuals required to draw the attention of her audience away from their TikTok and slyly working in an indictment of all the forces that have combined to give rise to religious fanaticism when faith in other institutions is on the wane. If the constant threat of blackouts and potential rationing looms in “Medusa,” the director know where to shine the light, often in arresting fashion.
“Medusa” will screen at Cannes as part of Directors Fortnight on July 12th at 9 pm at the Theatre Croisette and July 13th at 10 am at Le Raimu and 9 pm at Studio 13.